Word and Image of Vermont

August 30, 2007

I'm reasonably sure Mitt Romney's campaign is going to be weakened by the Larry Craig affair, not because Romney was formerly associated with the senator from Idaho But because of the hasty virulence in denouncing him. The thing that Romney doesn't understand about events of this sort is that though they draw much ridicule, they are also marked by an undercurrent of sympathy. People feel for a person in Craig's position, regardless of how pompous and hypocritical he has been in the past. Television has been sprinkled with remarks about Romney's cruelty, and it's not going to help him that New York Times editorialist Gail Collins wrote: : "it's good thing that when word about Craig first came out there weren't any small children or elderly people between him and the nearest microphone."

On top of the cruelty, there is Romney's declaration that the most important thing we want from public officials is that they serve as models for children. We assume that statements of that sort were crafted in public relations deliberations and that the candidate simply has a bad PR team. But we can't entirely dismiss the hideous possibility that they are sincere. Maybe that's what Romney actually believes. He has, of course, a reputation for not believing anything other than that he should be wafted incessantly to more powerful positions. Still, there are moments in our extended campaigns when real opinions slip out, and that's when certain candidates are most in danger.

August 29, 2007

As the buzz of so-called news rushes towards us from our computers, TV sets, and newspapers, I assume that many citizens are like me in hoping to discover some principle or hypothesis that will help in grasping the workings of politics. Is there something other than chaos that orders the way political actions develop?

The theory I hear most often is that political operatives, though they may spout altruistic idealism, are pure power mongers with a single goal, to enlarge the power, first, of themselves and, then, of the little groups that surround them. Nothing, not public well-being, constitutional principle, decent impulse, nor religious faith, will ever be allowed to thwart, or even to modify, aggressive power-seeking.

There appears to be a good deal of evidence to support that notion, but I remain suspicious of any concept that pure (I am coming to be disgusted by purity above all qualities imagined by humans). Surely among the ranks of government officials and members of Congress there are men and women who do care, at least a little bit, about public equity. It's hard to believe that every politician in the nation is perfectly hypocritical and perfectly corrupt. Hypocrisy and corruption are robust forces in government; there's no doubt about that. But are they hegemonic? Do they overwhelm everything else? And, if they do, how is the average person to respond?

Yesterday, in a local used bookstore, I walked by a shelf containing the collected works of Benjamin Disraeli. There were twenty volumes in all. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of 19th Century British history knows that Disraeli was not always free of hypocrisy and most observers think he was capable of active opportunism. Yet as I looked at those books, I said to myself, "God! If we could have men like Disraeli heading our affairs we would be so much better off than we are." Disraeli's books may not constitute great literature, but they were real books that gave evidence of a real mind at work.

Who do we have now, appearing on the TV talk shows to tell us how we should behave in the world, that exhibits the same qualities? Can you imagine getting through a novel penned by Mitt Romney?

If I were forced to choose an underlying theory explaining the workings of current American politics, I'd base it on neither corruption nor hypocrisy. My pick would be dull-mindedness. I don't believe we have many public officials with minds lively enough either to perceive or to be offended by the intellectual garbage that is thrown at them everyday by their compatriots.

I realize that's not much of an explanation because it doesn't tell us why we have dull clods leading our political debates rather then personalities like Gladstone and Disraeli. But at least it gives us a place to start in trying to figure out what we can do.

August 28, 2007

The scuttlebutt around Washington is that even George Bush won't be able to find a worse attorney general than Alberto Gonzales. That may be true, but we need to keep in mind that the president's perspective is somewhat different from ours.

If the average citizen has an opinion about what kind of attorney general we need -- the thought is a stretch in itself -- it's probably someone who will enforce the law fairly. But that's a naive notion. People don't get to be attorney-generals because they will enforce the law. They get the job, rather, to carry out the president's policies. Gonzales loyally tried to do that. His problem was that he couldn't hide what he was doing with evasive rhetoric. When he spoke to Congressional committees, he sounded like a nitwit. And, perhaps, that's because he is a nitwit. I can't say for sure.

All the talk, though, about the Justice Department now being able to heal strikes me as scary. If it does heal -- under Bush's leadership -- what's it going to do? We are not going to get justice out of a department in Bush's administration because Bush doesn't know what justice is. So, if he manages to get a skillful spinner as attorney-general, it's possible for conditions to get worse -- as far as justice is concerned.

I don't see the point of celebrating Gonzales's departure. The best thing for the Justice Department, and for justice, would have been for him to be kept under a Congressional microscope during the remaining months of the Bush administration. Members of the Senate, of course, will make a lot of brave noises about continuing to check into what happened over the past several years. But the general rule with Congress is out of sight, out of mind. The administration will be able to twist justice more with Gonzales gone than with him in the limelight. And, I'll bet that's what people in the White House are saying to themselves right now.

Strange Habits
August 25, 2007

The Michael Vick affair bewilders me. I recognize that there are many unusual tastes among humans and though I don't share most of them when one comes up I usually can imagine its appeal. But I can't grasp the desire to put dogs in a pit and watch them kill one another. I'm not interested now in taking up denunciatory language. It's that I can't comprehend what's going on.

When you consider that the activity is illegal, and therefore dangerous, why would a young man who has everything the general society considers valuable get involved in it? The human heart is truly a weird construct.

Mr. Vick is not winning sympathy for himself by his demeanor. He shows no sign of regret but rather looks out on the world with an expression which, regardless of his true feelings, comes across as pure arrogance.

I may be mistaken, but this story impresses me as being more symptomatic of our era than most of what's reported in the newspapers. There is a lust for violence and blood in the United States which pushes us ever farther apart from the other developed democracies. I suppose some perceive it as a sign of raw energy. But that's not how I see it. I just wish it would go away.

Fighting for the Deity
August 24, 2007

Last night I watched portions of a report on CNN titled God's Warriors. It was the final program of a three part series presented by Christiane Amanpour dealing with militant versions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This was the Christian part. I missed the other two.

In a descriptive title the noun deserves to be emphasized more than the modifiers, and this is certainly the case with Ms. Amanpour's reports. She is presenting extremely combative people, and it's easy to get the sense that if they weren't fighting for what they call God they would be engaged just as wildly in support of something else.  Still, there's a big advantage in fighting for God because since he is by definition the foundation of good, right, justice, et cetera, when you fight for him there's no need to take your opponents beliefs or concerns into account. Anybody who's opposed to God is plain out bad and that's all there is to it.

It's difficult to know how to characterize the people Ms. Amanpour interviewed, men like Ron Luce, John Hagee and Russell Johnson.  If they talked in the same way they do about anything other than God they might be locked up. Certainly most people would cross the street if they saw one of them coming. But taking God as your cause in America provides you with shield against being thought outright insane.

The report left little doubt about the efficacy of reasoned discourse with God's warriors. They are immune to it. Quite a few of the people Amanpour filmed are quite young, and so we can hope that over time they will discard the mania that envelops them now. But we know that many will not. They will go to their graves convinced that they have been vouchsafed ultimate truth and that anyone who doesn't see human meaning as they do is in the grip of Satan. And the suggestion that neither God nor Satan exist as they are portrayed in simplistic religious duality will be denounced as the ultimate Satanic message.

The threat posed by such warriors is hard to gage. I have tended to think they are not particularly dangerous. But I confess, some of the rhetoric I heard last night gave me pause.

August 23, 2007

Yesterday, Texas officially killed its 400th person since the death penalty was reinstated. It is now known all around the world as place where more state judicial killings take place than anywhere outside dictatorial regimes. In fact, that reputation has overwhelmed all others.

I wonder if average Texans are proud of how their state is regarded by most of the world. I suppose they must be, since they show no tendency to change their ways. It's a curious self-image, or, at least, it seems so to me. To be so wedded to killing people that you're willing to have your state known for that alone strikes me as morbid.

Do Texans get up in the morning and say to themselves, "Boy, I'm really glad we kill more people than anywhere else"? Do they think about it at lunch? Does it give them little ripples of happiness as they settle down to watch TV at night?

I don't guess we have any way to answer those questions. But, I wish we did. Knowing how Texans actually feel about killing people could offer us some insights into why Americans have decided to separate themselves from the rest of the democratic world with respect to taking people, strapping them onto tables and injecting poison in their veins.

It's commonly said that self-knowledge is good. And this is one area where we really need it.

August 22, 2007

An interesting problem for American politics currently is that conditions have got so bad, telling the truth about them will instantly cause one to be labeled an extremist.

We see this in the career of Scott Ritter, the former weapons inspector, who has been pretty much right about everything he has said concerning U.S. war policy over the past five years. But that's just the problem. Being right when ninety percent of the prognosticators are wrong is immodest. It tags one as being some sort of kook.

I don't suppose it has helped Ritter's standing with the media community that he hasn't been soft-spoken about their failings. A voice who notes "the collective deaf, dumb and blind pseudo-journalists  who populate what is known as the mainstream media" isn't likely to get a very good press.

Still, there is the issue of his rightness, and what to do about it. He has recently warned us about Dick Cheney, saying "the vice president is the single greatest threat to American and International security in the world today." It may well have penetrated the brains of most reporters by now that Mr. Cheney's views on international relations are unbalanced. It's hard to listen to him when he appears on television talk shows -- as he still manages to do -- and not to be troubled by suspicions of insanity. But, that's not the sort of thing a respectable reporter wants to say. It might cause him, or her, to be thought of as a bit radical. So Scott Ritter's warning about what the vice president can cause in the final sixteen months of the Bush administration tends to get brushed into a corner. I hope the cost of dismissing him, and of the polite, muted commentary on the networks and in the big national papers, doesn't turn out to be thousands of lives.

American Erudition
August 22, 2007

An Associated Press article printed in my newspaper this morning informed me that a quarter of American adults don't read a single book in a year. I don't believe it. When data of this sort is compiled it is done by polls. And many people, when they are polled about reading, lie. If a quarter of the people are willing to say they read no books then the actual number has to be at least twice that.

I don't suppose the Associated Press is interested in finding out what percentage of American adults are capable of reading a book. You can't find that out through polls.

If you exclude books with titles like The Duke's Delight or How God Helped Me Become a Millionaire in Five Easy Steps what percentage of non-book readers do you suppose you would find then? My guess is it would be at least eighty percent.

It's not clear what to make of the American habit of avoiding serious books. There are, after all, other ways to get information about important topics. My own experience tells me that if I relied strictly on magazines, newspapers, and the internet for my grasp of how the political world works, I would understand about half as much as I do from reading book-length analyses.

I don't suppose it matters any longer whether a person has a developed literary sensibility. After all, Mitt Romney can continue to be viewed as a serious candidate for the presidency after revealing that his favorite novel is Battleship Earth. But for those so out of date as to think that literary understanding provides a form of intelligence unobtainable in any other way, the decline of book reading will be regrettable.

Can democracy function effectively among an electorate of non-book readers? I don't know? But it's a question that for me doesn't easily go away.

August 16, 2007

The recent comic antics in Iowa have left me wondering how it matters which of the Republican candidates secures the nomination. I can't convince myself that the choice has any significance whatsoever.

Would I rather have Romney or Giuliani as president? Merely posing the question in black and white shows how absurd it is. And it would be just as silly were I to place any other two in the query. It's pathetic that conditions have arrived at this state. I suppose it would be nice to find some way to blame George Bush for them. But I can't do even that.

We should recall that for too long we've turned away from the truth that there's a difference between functional and a dysfunctional democracy. It's not sufficient simply to keep certain forms in place. The decisions the forms allow us to make have to be charged with substance or else our choices become pointless. And there are no substantial differences among the clowns who have been making jokes of themselves at the Iowa state fair. 

When people respond to hot air as though it was meaningful discourse, functional democracy is out the window. We have descended to publicity campaigns among gigantic egos. It's a show, of sorts. And if you want to, you can watch it. But watching doesn't mean you're going to have any say in how your government behaves. And when the public is divorced from actual governmental action, that's democratic dysfunction in spades.

August 15, 2007

Here in Chicago I've discovered a new form of economic activity: bookstore begging. You go into a secluded alcove at the back of a shop to see if there are new additions to "Everyman's Library": and a guy comes up to you and begins with "Just listen a minute before you say no." Then comes a tale of having to lay out all his money on prescription medications because of a rare ailment and, therefore, having not a cent left for food. Looking into his eyes, it's easy to believe the part about spending everything on drugs, though not exactly the kind he spoke of.

In this case, I took change out of my pocket and gave it to him -- a little over a dollar. And he thanked me very politely.

When you think about it, the plan makes sense. What kind of people go into bookstores? There are probably few who would respond with abuse when asked for money. So, that's a safety factor. And, it may be the case that bookstore shoppers are a little more generous than the average person on the street -- although, about that, I can't be sure.

In any case, begging in a bookstore shows a certain flair which I have to admire, though I hope it doesn't become widespread. I guess we can rely on the bookstore owners to thwart that danger. They're probably not quite as softhearted as the average book buyer is.

More Than Obsolescent
August 11, 2007

I've admired Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine, for many years now. Over the time I've read his editorial essays I've occasionally thought he had dived into the pool of extremism. But after reflection, I've usually discovered he was right and that I hadn't yet delved to the bottom of American corruption.

His column in the September Harper's may be the finest he has written because it addresses the most severe delusion still gripping the world's political leaders: the notion that modern war can be an instrument for any positive outcome. Lapham tells us, without pulling any punches, that war didn't survive, either as a technology or an idea, its tour of duty in the graves of the 20th century. It's not what it used to be in the good old days of the Romans, when the empire thought nothing of crucifying a thousand men in a single day.

He quotes Charles "Chinese" Gordon, the martyr of Khartoum, some six weeks before he met his "heroic" fate, to the effect that when "one analyzes human glory, it is composed of nine-tenths twaddle, perhaps ninety-nine hundredths twaddle." Gordon was 99% right.

Lapham has read John Mueller, author of Remnants of War, who instructs us that there are only two forms of the practice remaining in the world -- civil wars and policing wars. The U.S. effort in Iraq is an example of the latter. And Mueller regards both forms as essentially criminal enterprises. It would be hard to say anything more succinctly true of our ongoing adventure in the Middle East.

Armies, their tactics and their weapons cannot do what politicians laud them for doing. It is a farce to regard them as heroic institutions when, in truth, what they actually accomplish is mere brutal farce. That's a message which hasn't yet taken hold among the public at large but which has to be spread if we're to avoid a doleful future. Lapham deserves our respect for leading the way in teaching it to us.

Countless Declarations
August 11, 2007

Peter Schrag has a convincing article in the September Harper's titled "Schoolhouse Crock: Fifty Years of Blaming America's Education System for Our Stupidity."  His main point is that all the crazes and phases we've endured since Sputnik haven't done much to make the schools better. No matter how many predictions of national disaster we imbibe the schools keep dragging along pretty much as they would have in any case. They aren't as bad as critics say, but they aren't very good either.

Schrag doesn't say explicitly why American students aren't as sharp or knowledgeable as young people from other nations, but he implies pretty strongly that it's simply a matter of culture. We Americans aren't the most curious population in the global grab-bag.

His prescription is that we ought to relax, and think about the schools as being for the students rather than for the nation. If we could turn out good and intelligent people maybe that ravenous Moloch could stop dominating our neuroses. And, who knows? Perhaps if the schools were just for learning and not our instrument for making America Number One, the students might begin to learn more effectively, and pleasantly too.

Showing Off
August 10, 2007

In his column today, David Brooks asks, "Why do the Democratic candidates pretend to be smarter than they really are, while the Republicans pretend to be dumber?"

The answer to the first part is simple -- human nature. Almost everybody likes to act as though he's smarter than he is. It's a dictate of natural egotism

When, though, you find people trying to act dumber than they are, you have a more complicated query. First, I'm not sure it's accurately phrased. Are the Republican candidates actually smarter than they act? I'm not sure. It's really, really hard to act dumber than some of these guys are. It would take genius in histrionics.

But for the sake of fun, let's accept Brooks's hypothesis and assume that the Republicans are smarter than they act. Why are they behaving that way? The most likely answer is that they want to identify with people who are dumb enough to vote for them. They have to take account of spokesmen like Rush Limbaugh, who was recently described by John Landis of Vienna, Virginia as the primary mobilizer of the idiot vote for the Republicans. When you're a member of a party that has made gigantic efforts to sweep up every bigot, racist, xenophobic numbskull in the nation -- and you've succeeded -- then you have to try to pretend to be one of them. And, this is the interesting development -- when you play a role for a long, long time, you begin to grow into it. That, I suspect, is the answer to Brooks's question, and you would think that a guy who has been playing at being smart as long as Brooks has would begin to recognize it.

Doubts and Foreboding
August 7, 2007

I keep running into items that cause me to wonder about the future of democracy. Right now the prospects don't look bright.

For example, I read recently an interview with Elliot Cohen, author of The Last Days of Democracy.  Mr. Cohen says that America is becoming a dictatorship. Because the media are simply moneymaking machines, the government can control them through the pursestrings. And the internet, the best hope for democracy in America, is being targeted by large corporations who seek to dominate it and gain effective control over what is posted online. A few years ago I would have thought such an argument was extreme. But now it seems far more sober.

The New York Times this morning had a scathing editorial about the Democrats who allowed themselves to be tricked into passing Bush's surveillance bill. They had thought it was one thing right up to the time of the vote. But then they found far more sweeping powers than they knew about had been inserted into it. Yet they were afraid to turn around lest someone call them soft on something. Soft in the head is what the Times implies. And soft-headed legislators are not going to protect democratic liberties.

The current issue of Foreign Affairs has an article by Azar Gat who warns that the United States is threatened more by the rise of great authoritarian regimes like Russia and China than it is by Islamic extremism. The problem with the piece is that the very developments Gat sees coming to the fore in China and Russia are also on the march here. They constitute a capitalistic militarism which has no use for freedom of speech or individual rights. Mr. Gat thinks democracy is under assault from without when the truth may be that the more effective assault is burgeoning within.

For a long time we have said that democracy, though not perfect, is the best form of government humankind has devised. The argument has force as long as we're talking about a democracy of alert and reasonably well-informed voters. But if the electorate is ignorant and lazy-minded then a nominal democracy is no better than dictatorship. It can be worse.

The reason so many voices are despairing of democracy is that they can't find sufficient numbers of people, here in America at least, to make it work as it should. And at the moment, we have little sense of where such citizens might come from.

Esoteriology -- or, I Have the Right to Make Up Words Like Anybody Else
August 3, 2007

Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, has deigned to explain to us which religious opinions it's okay to introduce into politics and which ones ought to be banned. It turns out that religious anthropology is all right but that soteriology and eschatology aren't. This means -- to descend to the language of the lower orders -- that politicians should be expected to pronounce on God's views of individual human worth but not on how a candidate thinks God selects people for heaven (or somewhere else) or on how God has decided to bring earthly humanity to an end.

Exactly why the one and not the other two is hard to say. Gerson simply resorts to the redundancy of announcing that religious anthropology is public whereas soteriology and eschatology are private and deeply personal. This comes to us from a man who coined the term "axis of evil" and who worked mightily to launch the invasion of Iraq. Even though he has been designated by Time Magazine one of the twenty-five most influential Evangelicals in the nation he hasn't devoted a lot of time to teaching us about why God thinks subjecting the Iraqis to shock and awe was an anthropologically correct thing to do.

Still, that's all water under the bridge and now we've got to move on. And what we're moving on to in this case is the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, who, as some of you may have heard, is a Mormon.  Mr. Gerson appears to be high on Mr. Romney and, therefore, he doesn't want much attention given to the candidate's private and deeply personal views on religious matters. This, presumably, is out of respect for the principle of excluding soteriology and eschatology from political debate and not because the public, if they knew the details of Romney's beliefs would likely find them bizarre and perhaps even weird.

I can't bring myself to believe that Gerson, despite his standing near the top of the Evangelical heap, wrote this column to clarify theological issues. I think it's just more Republican spin. And though I agree with Gerson that Romney shouldn't be rejected simply because of his religion, the business of crediting a candidate with deep faith while at the same time excluding what he believes from public examination strikes me as wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Gaining that advantage for Republicans is what Gerson is really all about. God's views are by-products.

August 2, 2007

In the current number of Foreign Affairs, an article titled "Rising to a New Generation of Global Challenges" appears under the name of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. I read it and was left with a number of intriguing questions.

Who wrote it for him, or might it be that he actually wrote it himself? What did he intend to accomplish with it? What political theory does it exemplify? How can anything this empty issue from the brain of any human being, no matter how cynical he might be?

I suppose you could say the essence of the piece is encapsulated by a sentence in the third section which reads, " Many still fail to comprehend the extent of the threat posed by radical Islam, specifically by those extremists who promote violent jihad against the United States and the universal values Americans espouse." Can anyone imagine that Mitt Romney has spent even five minutes thinking about the meaning of the word "jihad?" Not a sentence is devoted to explaining or imagining why "extremists" are extreme. No curiosity is expressed about why it is that if the values Americans espouse are "universal" so many people around the world are opposed to them. How can something that's universal arouse so much hostility? Isn't that a violation of the meaning of the term?

The only possible usage I can find for this article is that it might function as a veneer suggesting thought to people who don't take thought seriously and despise the notion of it. Perhaps Romney and his team have selected people of that description as their base and have decided to play up to them shamelessly. Or might it be that Romney is a person of that description and in this article is simply presenting himself? I can't decide which option is more discouraging.

A Worldwide Phenomenon
August 1, 2007

David Remnick's article in the latest New Yorker about Israeli politician Avraham Burg  is informative about the state of mind in the Middle East but its most important revelation addresses a development that goes well beyond that region.

Mr. Burg created a furor with a interview published in Ha'aretz that wasn't viewed as flattering to his fellow countrymen. He announced that a large and increasingly ardent element of Israeli society has come to disdain political democracy. The nation in its current condition is, he said, Holocaust-obsessed, militaristic, xenophobic, and vulnerable to an extremist minority. His remarks were, of course, greeted with cries of indignation and charges of disloyalty. That seems to be the inevitable response to anyone who's not willing to praise his own country beyond all others. But since Mr. Burg is not simply another crank but was recently the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset perhaps he ought to be listened to with some care.

Burg is speaking of a development that certainly is not limited to Israel alone. If we hadn't handicapped ourselves with virtually insane name-calling we would be able to designate it for what it is -- fascism. Fascism is rearing its head all around the world and one of the biggest problems we have in confronting it is that we have no acceptable name for it. To call someone a fascist in the present cultural climate functions not really as description but simply as insult. And yet there are what ought to be called fascist movements in almost every nation. Certainly we have a very strong one here in the United States and the evidence seems more and more clear that Israel has one also. Just how powerful they are is hard to say. There's some evidence that people who do believe in political democracy are rising against them more effectively than was the case just five years ago. But that doesn't mean that this thing we can't call fascism has gone away. It is, in truth, an ineradicable political impulse and it gains in strength by not having a usable name. The lack of a name allows it to promote itself as mere loyalty and patriotism.

Fascism is, in its essence, the argument that one's own country is so valuable, so noble, so mystically great that no other nation or no other people count for much. There is no legitimate fondness for or caring about humanity in general. The only thing that matters is the folk of the nation, who are defined not by themselves individually but by the national mythos. It's always helpful, of course, to have a religion attached to all this.

Once you get a clear picture of fascism, you can perceive easily that its end is perpetual war.  That's what we're facing, both in Israel and the United States, if we continue to elevate leaders of certain sort to power. And if that's not what you want, in other words, if you're not a fascist, you would do well to look for a leadership quite different from what you've had in the recent past.

That seems to be the message Burg is trying to push on the Israelis and I must admit I wish we had someone with the standing and courage to push it with equal force here in the United States.

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